So we spent Monday looking at the economic basics of classroom and teaching loads, and Tuesday looking at how difficult it is to improve the situation by increases in tuition or government grants. Wednesday we saw that reducing average academic compensation (presumably via increasing the proportion of credits taught by adjuncts) can be quite effective in reducing teaching loads, while on Thursday we saw how trying to achieve a similar effect through attacking costs other than academic compensation would require enormously painful – and probably unrealistic – cuts.
What can we conclude from all this?
There is no silver bullet here. You can’t solve everything on the revenue side because governments: i) aren’t going to fork over the stonking huge amounts of money required to change things; ii) aren’t going to permit large tuition increases; and, iii) at some point are going to put limits on the extent to which universities can escape domestic fiscal problems by becoming finishing schools for the Asian middle class. At the same time, you can’t solve everything by decreasing average academic wages because: i) tenure; ii) unions; and, iii) casualization can’t go on indefinitely. Finally, you can’t solve everything by cutting “fat” on the non-academic side because the size of the bloodletting would simply be too big.
So, realistically, the solution to keeping teaching loads (and hence class sizes) manageable is to work at the margins on all three, at once. The income one is probably the easiest: even if government does not have more money, it could (as I argued back here) allow tuition to rise without students being unduly affected if it simply reformed student aid to make it more efficient and transparent.
On non-academic costs, vigilance is key. Costs need to be kept in check. There is a need to continually become more efficient – which probably means looking more seriously at outsourcing certain functions. Bits of IT come to mind, as do bookshops.
On academic salaries, there’s no big secret about what needs to be done. Every time wages increase, universities either have to get more income, or increase the number of sessionals, or raise teaching loads. That’s simple arithmetic. To the extent an institution can keep enrolments up and get a little bit more money per student, on average, the situation can stay relatively stable indefinitely (though it isn’t going to get any better).
Where this gets tricky is where student numbers – and hence income – start to fall. We didn’t explore that this week because our equation – X = aϒ/(b+c) – assumes that there is budget balance. But when enrolment drops, expenditure has to drop in the medium term because the lack of students means you can’t release the pressure by increasing teaching loads.
So when you see the number of applicants to an institution drop by, say, 20% (as first-choice applications have now done at Windsor) over two years, you start to worry. Without the option to increase loads, expenditures have to fall, and as we’ve seen, the least disruptive way to do that is to increase sessionals. But since tenure exists and you can’t force out a professor and replace them with a sessional, that’s a marginal solution at best. Academic compensation will have to fall: either through wage freezes, pension changes, or a reduction in the number of academic positions. Either that or the institution will close.
There’s no sinister conspiracy here, no evil administrative plots. It’s just math. More people should pay attention to it.